FPI Executive Director Jamie Fly: "What Happened to 'Crippling Sanctions?'"

Getty Images

Now that we’re two weeks into 2010 and the Obama administration’s end of 2009 deadline for progress with Iran is quickly disappearing in the rear view mirror, one would expect that the administration would be moving towards the “crippling sanctions” that Secretary of State Clinton threatened Iran with for most of 2009. 

Instead, there are reports that the administration is still flirting with a possible deal to transfer some of Iran’s low enriched uranium out of the country.  As Laura Rozen at Politico notes, this comes as the vaunted P5+1 group of countries supposedly working together to resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis is increasingly becoming a group of five rather than six.  She writes that the Chinese may not be able to attend a meeting planned for Saturday in New York.  It’s worth noting that the Chinese also bailed on a planned P5+1 meeting in December.

Thus far, indications are that the administration seems to think “crippling sanctions” means whatever meaningless piece of paper they can force through the Security Council, but such sanctions will be far from “crippling.”  The administration has slowed down legislation in Congress that some advocates argue would cripple the Iranian economy.  The sanctions that are being openly discussed in the press these days are targeted actions against the Iranian regime including the increasingly powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.  These are measures worth taking, but again are unlikely to “cripple” the regime enough to force a reconsideration of Iran’s nuclear weapons desires.

Perhaps most troubling are the signs that any sanctions the administration pursues will be aimed at essentially sanctioning the regime back to the negotiating table.  An exchange at Tuesday’s State Department press briefing between a skeptical reporter and Acting Deputy Spokesman Gordon Duguid reinforced this notion:

“QUESTION: What kind of sanctions the P-5+1 political directors will discuss on Saturday in New York?

MR. DUGUID: Well, I don’t know that anybody’s given in exact detail the agenda for the next P5+1 meeting, which will take place towards the end of this week. What will be discussed, of course, is ideas that any of the partners have on how we can get Iran to live up its international obligations, on which of the two tracks needs to be pushed at this time. We will be looking at specific measures, of course. I think we will bring our ideas to the table, as well as our other partners, and discuss those. But let’s let the meeting take place first before we start talking about what it is that they may come up with. This is going to be a very long process. We are starting our discussions. They will be deliberate. They will be deliberative. And we’ll move on from there.

QUESTION: But this has already been a very long process. Numerous years. How much longer is it going to be?

MR. DUGUID: We will continue –

QUESTION: And in the meantime, while you guys have been talking away and chatting and not getting anywhere on the sanctions issue, the Iranians have continued to enrich. How much longer?

MR. DUGUID: The Iranian nuclear program has continued, and we have continued to oppose it. It is our goal to get Iran to live up to its international obligations. To do that, we feel that the two-track approach is the best approach. We will continue to work at it as long as it takes to achieve the objective. And we will continue to look at both tracks, and seriously look at both tracks, in order to better target not only whatever sanctions might be effective but also to look at those other incentives. We have a very good deal on the table right now with the TRR. We continue to say that Iran should accept that deal and help build the confidence that we all need to accept that its nuclear program is, as it says, for peaceful means and not otherwise.”

So, despite the fact that President Obama’s deadline has passed, the State Department is preparing for “deliberative discussions” and “a very long process.”   And even though Iran has repeatedly slapped the President’s outstretched hand, the administration has still not abandoned its engagement strategy.  The unfortunate reality is that a “dual track” approach won’t work because the Iranians realize that there is no sanctions track given that the Obama administration has nothing to show for its vaunted diplomatic skills.

What we learned in 2009 was that engagement will not prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.  Our best hope now is change of the Iranian regime from within.  The United States should be taking all necessary measures to make regime change a reality.  This involves supporting the Iranian opposition both rhetorically and practically as well as implementing the broadest sanctions possible both unilaterally as well as with likeminded allies.  These are “crippling” actions.  Unfortunately, the Obama administration seems all too content to play footsie with Moscow and Beijing while Iran kills its own citizens and continues to make progress toward a nuclear weapon.

Originally posted on The Weekly Standard Blog

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
Read More